Ed Davey – Liberal Democrat Leadership Interview

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 12th July 2019

Electoral Reform Society Chief Executive Darren Hughes spoke with Lib Dem leadership candidate Ed Davey

Darren Hughes: Ed, thank you very much for joining us as part of your campaign I know that you’ve always been a big believer that democracy in the UK needs to change. Have you had much interest in democratic renewal constitutional issues? 

Ed Davey: In the hustings, we’ve had questions on electoral reform, on a written constitution, on devolution power… So, it’s a big issue for the party and one of the reasons I’m a Liberal Democrat is because I want political liberalism and that means quite big constitutional reforms and there has been some progress in the last thirty years. It’s been painfully slow. We’ve got a long way to go, which we’ll no doubt talk about now.

Where do you see the broader devolution discussion going in the future?

ED: I think you should start with local government. For me, if you can get a stronger local democracy, I think that will be one of the antidotes to the whole Leave/Brexit nastiness. Clearly, that’s not sufficient, but I’m a veteran of the regional assembly campaign for the North East and I was actually at the count when the people of the North East voted and rejected it in very large numbers. One has to learn from that, and the real issue is they didn’t want another load of politicians and I don’t think the move will have changed would be my guess.

So, as we approach regional devolution and further powers going down in England, we have to learn from that and think quite hard. We’ve seen experiments in different parts of the country, particularly city mayors, and the party has got to work out whether that is one way of doing things.

I always have a problem with mayors, if I’m honest with you. I think giving one person so much power can lead to some serious problems. There has to be a much deeper debate in the party. We’ve got to look at all the different options, but we have to find ways of devolving power. I think we’ve just got to grasp this debate because of the disappointment of the North East assembly referendum is something that I think the party hasn’t really thought about enough. We’ve just got to get our minds around alternative solutions because we have to get power down.

In terms of there being a reluctance to get more politicians that’s understandable, but if you’re going to have a certain number you want them to be elected fairly – people get  something for it – and I think one of the achievements of the  Liberal Democrat/Labour coalition in Scotland was to introduce STV for elections and local  government in Scotland, and it’s now had three goes of that.

ED: It’s gone very well

Did you see that that could be part of the solution in England as well?

ED: Absolutely. STV-PR in local government is a key strategic play for the Liberal Democrats. One of our big mistakes in the last 30 years was to think we could go the whole hog straight away. If we had got STV-PR in local government 25 years ago I would argue we’d probably now already have STV-PR in national government because people get used to voting systems and it wouldn’t be an issue any longer.

We saw in the AV campaign, “The British people can’t go ‘one, two, three’.” Now we all know that’s nonsense. However, the other side is able to paint it as some alien force – some dangerous, foreign type of force and all that nonsense. So if people have got used to voting STV-PR in two, three local elections up in Scotland, I think the case for getting Westminster would just be so easy, and everyone will go, “Oh, of course”. So getting STV-PR in local government in England, and obviously in Wales now the power’s being devolved there, I think is a real strategic goal for the Liberal Democrats. It should be as soon as we have power, as soon as we have influence, that is one of the top things we should ask for.

That’s really encouraging to hear. On devolution just more generally to finish off on that area, the Liberal Democrats have always set out quite a strong stall on federalism. Given the way that devolution has been developing in Scotland, is there any new fresh thinking or insights that you think the Liberal Democrats need to be looking at in terms of the politics of the union? 

ED: Yes, I mean we are a federalist party within the United Kingdom, and I think it’s important to say that and use that word and be clear that’s the principle guiding us. I think it’s important that we have a constitution so that the Scottish Parliament isn’t the creature of the government of the day, which I find constantly not good enough.

It still begs a question – going back to the English devolution – quite how you would do that. I’m not convinced that the experience shows that if you push things down to people and force them on it that’s going to work and as liberals, I think we need it to bubble up more. Maybe we could do constitutional assemblies, we could do citizens’ juries. There are different ways we might be able to get greater support for this notion.

It may be that as we hopefully stop Brexit and then are influential to try to solve the causes of Brexit, and we give people more power and more say and we devolve power from Westminster, that debate can get sparked again – but I’m sceptical that you would do it in the old way that we used to imagine.

I remember when the Liberal Democrats published  the first-ever written constitution back in 1991 or 1990 I think it was, and it was called ‘We the People’ and it was a wonderful document but it was federalism in its purest sense and time has moved on and while that’s my ideal, you’ve got to  work out how we get there given the recent history.

That leads nicely – the discussion about citizens’ assemblies – into new ways of doing politics. What we’ve all been picking up recently is what happens in between elections is very important, too. Do you see more use of deliberate democracy tools?  Do you think people are moving just beyond one way of looking at democracy? 

ED: I hope so. We’ve got the sort of polarised divide between representative democracy and direct democracy, and I think our experience with direct democracy recently isn’t a terribly happy one, so there is the more innovative approach of deliberative democracy, participative democracy, however you want to phrase it.

I’ve actually been looking at a number of models around the world about how you engage citizens more so that they not only are listened to but they actually make decisions. There’s a number of experiments including one that took place around the UK of participatory budgeting where parts of a local authority budget,  people in the community get to say – not just councillors but ordinary people – how that money is spent, and I think that’s something we should look seriously at. We obviously need to talk to our local government family which is so important but you know my experience of lots of the Liberal Democrats and councillors is that they would be open to new ways of doing things to engage people more. Two examples I’ve been particularly interested in, one is from the first Muslim mayor of North America who was the mayor of Calgary and then one from Reykjavik in Iceland.

The Calgary model is a more simple model where a mayor – a big political leader – said, “I’m gonna do three things for Calgary. What three things are you gonna do for Calgary?”  And people started saying, “I want to do something for my city” And it worked. He gave permission for people to come forward with ideas and to do stuff and he ensured that where it was required, the city hall facilitated it and that was quite a simple way–it has the beauty of being simple, no structures, no bureaucracy. It’s much, much easier. That’s one way you might do something.

Reykjavik – after it had its political meltdown after the Icelandic banking crisis, they looked really quite deeply at their political models and they created this online participation platform called ‘Better Reykjavik’, and citizens put forward ideas and then voted each other’s up and down. The most popular ideas go to city council and they have to look at them and then they have to take some more forward, and in a nearly a decade over  80% of the citizens of Reykjavik got involved at least once on this platform – which I think is a staggering figure – and over 600 projects proposed by citizens of Reykjavik have now been done.

The other thing we’ve been looking at is how can you get more people both into politics and interested in it? But also, you need to make sure that we’re staffing politics with a much more representative range of people. I just wondered if you’ve got thoughts about how to promote more diversity within the political world and then also thinking of young people who feel also quite disempowered from the political system–how can we be getting political education/citizenship from early doors rather than kind of being seen as an add-on? 

ED: Well on diversity we’ve got a long, long way to go. There have been improvements – I mean we are a more diverse parliament, lots more diverse than it was, but progress has been slow including the Liberal Democrats. So, while we’ve always been champions of diversity and equality, actually in our own house we’ve not been quite as good as we need to be.

We’ve previously been against all-women shortlists. I deemed them illiberal and I remember my wife being very strongly against them and she stood for Parliament four times, so she has a particular axe to grind. But when it came up last time, when we went for all-woman shortlists, I just felt we had to do it because we just hadn’t made the progress we needed to. It was just a simple fact, and we’d seen how they’d worked for Labour – not without controversy – but it had to be done.

So we’re now in the process of making progress and if we win a lot more seats next time as I’m sure we will do, we’ll see the parliamentary party far more gender-balanced as it absolutely needs to be. It has to be at least 50/50 as soon as possible in my view, but in terms of other diversities, we’ve still got a long way to go from LGBT+ to black and ethnic minorities to disabled representatives. We are just behind the times, and we’ve got to do a lot more.

Part of it, I think, is leaders – senior politicians – going out asking people, giving people the confidence to stand, so I like to think that’s one thing I’ve managed to achieve in my own constituency. We’re getting women and black and ethnic minorities, in particular, to stand for council, so we’ve got a majority women Kingston Council and majority women leadership group and the first Korean councillor ever. So that’s taken quite some effort, but if leaders actually go out and say to people “You know what, I think you could be a councillor, I think you could be an MP,” it gives people that degree of confidence.

I visit lots of schools and colleges and universities and there are lots of young people interested in politics probably now more than they were 10 years ago with issues like Brexit and climate change really firing people up. To see the young people striking on climate change was absolutely dreamy. I was so pleased that they did. Just huge congratulations to them, and that people complained about them! It’s just not understanding where society needs to go, and it was an educational opportunity to see people getting involved. We should do more within schools. A lot does go on. I’ve seen some fantastic education about politics and civic life in local schools. I’m absolutely sure there should be more.

In Scotland where they’ve had votes at 16, for example, and then there was a big event like a referendum and followed on with extra elections that younger people could vote in, and they were getting those kinds of discussions happening at school. They did flow over into the family home. Getting political debate and discussion going, that rises all votes and the democratic tides, I guess.

ED: So, yet another reason for votes at sixteen! I didn’t need convincing but you’ve given me another reason. Very good.

We’ll finish off now, Ed, talking about the institutions – the two big institutions. One of our big campaigns has been against the House of Lords and its current state. How do you see how House of Lords reform take the next step? 

ED: My view is the Liberal Democrats should be the champions of reforming the House of  Lords, and yes, it should be STV-PR and yes, it should happen and it was one of the most frustrating parts of the coalition that the Tories reneged on their promise on House of Lords reform. House of Lords reform is turning out to be one of the most difficult reforms in our country. How many times has it been tried? And there have been unholy alliances to stop it. But we should keep trying. It’s essential in my view. Fully elected – I’m not one of these people who think it should be partial or those sorts of things.

My only compromise would be that you might allow some people to have speaking rights, not voting rights, so if you wanted a group that’s either already there or you think they’re really important, you can give them speaking rights. Which sort of counters the expertise saying that gets thrown up as a reason for keeping over 800 people for life in the chamber. It’s expensive, it’s ridiculous. We should surely be more serious about politics.

Incredibly, it’s nearly a decade since the 2010 election which was one of the last times that democratic issues for reform were on the agenda. Are these the sort of topics that we should be able to rely on the Liberal Democrats to bring fully to the table? 

ED: Of course. The idea that we would not pursue that constitutional form of agenda of the Lords, of the voting system, the House of Commons with as much effort and energy as we can… Clearly, we have to and in a way, the experience of Brexit, which shows I think our democracy going backwards, has given it another lease of life. It does feel to me that many people sign up to the statement ‘politics is broken’. And when you’ve got that mood then there is a chance for reform, and we need to find that and use this current political debate and the current fallout from Brexit, so here’s an opportunity to make some deeper, deeper reforms.  Because we’ve got the case to make, we can say that if we’d had proportional representation, this wouldn’t have happened and so on. So, I do think there is a chance which we have to grasp.

I always caution one little bit which is my tactics about making sure you do the things that you know you can achieve more quickly which will help you longer term. Which is why I talked about STV-PR in local government – a sort of early win. Get that in and then you can keep planning everything else. If we made a mistake in the coalition on electoral reform, it was to have the referendum in 2011. I’m sure wise heads will review that over the years, but it did feel we rushed into it, and a bit more experience of government, I think, would have been better.

In the intervening years with Brexit, it’s reinforced why these things are important. So, we do need parties like the Liberal Democrats and leaders like you to be pushing that the whole time if we’re gonna get the change we so desperately need. 

ED: I would add something else though, and that is the power of the Commons. The Brexit process, I think, has exposed the weaknesses of Parliament. Even when a government does have a majority as weak as Theresa May’s, it’s been impossible for Parliament to grab hold of the business. We’ve had amazingly lurid debates and massive claims over how awful it was that the MPs want to decide their own business. Are people not astonished by this? It just shows what a completely weak organisation Parliament is.

So, the biggest reform I’d like to see after changing the voting system for the House of Commons is to reform the way MPs look at spending proposals. It was a hundred years ago this year when it was the last time that MPs rejected a spending request from the government of the day. In the century afterwards, we’ve let billions of pounds go through without any scrutiny whatsoever. That is a massive failure in our political system. It means MPs never get their hands dirty, never have to work hard. We need to change that in my view. It just seems to me that MPs should have not just more control over the way they do their business, but to be able to scrutinise the budget far more, and they need resources to do that. In the United States, they have the Congressional Budget Office – incredibly significant – and if you look at other legislatures, they’ve got far more resources for MPs to propose, “No, don’t spend that money there – that’d be a bad idea. Spend that money over here.”

While that might seem very boring for some people, to me it goes to the heart of what we need to do and it would be one way of restoring confidence in Parliament, and if you don’t do this it actually gives the Civil Service more power. The argument is that because ministers don’t have to defend that budget in Parliament properly – because Parliament can’t hold them to account – they never get to see what their budget really is. And when I was a Secretary of State, the only time I was ever really allowed to make budget decisions was at the end of the year when there was a little bit of change left and they were trying to work out how to spend it and not give it back to the Treasury.

So, I make lots of very important decisions that were about 10 or 20 million pounds but there’s sort of five billion pounds baked in. And the system just doesn’t work… And could give meaning to the phrases such as ‘Take Back Control’. When people say, “We want sovereignty of Parliament,” I normally say, “I wish we had some.” Because Parliament isn’t sovereign. Not in the way that people think about that word because Parliament doesn’t control the executive. The executive decides what the business is. The executive decides how money is spent, not Parliament.

Ed Davey, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. You’ve got a full agenda of things to work on if you get the chance and we wish you well.

ED: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you

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